Senators brace for veterans health care battle

As Congress returns from its summer recess, senators should brace themselves for flak from veterans groups' irate over 2004 funding for veterans' health care. Senators have a chance to get their House counterparts out of a jam, or to fall right in with them.

Back in April, in the budget resolution that outlines spending levels, the Senate persuaded the House to agree to add a whopping $1.8 billion to the president's request for the perennially strapped Veterans Affairs health system. The amount would have brought the VA budget to the level recommended by leading veterans' groups in their "Veterans' Independent Budget" analysis. But the budget resolution paid for this increase with a promise to cut other unspecified domestic programs later.

"There was no real, solid money behind it," said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. "Unlike the budget resolution, we have to deal with reality." Even Rep. Robert Simmons, R-Conn., chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health, said that appropriators "were essentially required to fund 10 pounds of program in a 5-pound bag." So the appropriations bill to set actual spending levels simply left out the extra $1.8 billion. Over the bitter opposition of Simmons and others, the House stuck with President Bush's requested sum.

But the House left out something else the president had asked for: authority to double co-payments and impose a $250 annual fee on veterans earning more than $24,000 a year. These measures would have raised revenues and reduced costs, chiefly by discouraging an estimated 1.2 million veterans from seeking VA care. By omitting these unpopular provisions, administration officials say, the House has left them $800 million in the hole.

In July, Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., tried to raise a bipartisan revolt against his own party's appropriations bill to get more money for veterans' health. But his uprising failed. House GOP leaders, backing the president, introduced a procedural measure (a rule) that would have effectively barred any amendments designed to add back the $1.8 billion. Democrats opposed the procedural measure. All but six Republicans voted for it, even those who wanted more VA money, because the vote came down to a leadership test of party loyalty. (Smith himself did not cast a vote on the rule; Simmons voted against it.) Then when the full appropriations bill came up, 59 Republicans, including 21 of 33 freshmen, voted against it to register their disapproval of the VA shortfall. All but 50 Democrats supported the bill, seeing opposition as moot at that point, because the rule prevented adding more money. With veterans' advocates divided, both the rule and the bill passed the full House.

So now everyone is unhappy. The administration wants its fees and co-pays back. Republican House members with lots of veterans in their districts feel that their leadership hyped up expectations only to dash them, leaving members to face the backlash at home. Veterans' groups, most of which conveniently hold their national conventions in August, have mobilized their members to storm the Hill.

And now the whole mess is in the Senate's hands. "The House dumped this dead bird in our laps," said one Senate staffer. "We're sure as hell going to do better."

But by how much? The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations' subcommittee for veterans, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, has publicly pledged to restore the full $1.8 billion. However, it's ultimately up to Republican Chairman Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri to make the math work out, and money is tight. There are only two practical options. Either the subcommittee must cut the grab bag of other popular programs in its jurisdiction-including NASA, the National Science Foundation, and housing programs for the poor. Or, 60 senators must vote to set aside budgeting rules and get the money by increasing an already record deficit-something Republican leaders are struggling to prevent.

Even splitting the difference will be hard. Just making up for those unpopular fees and co-pays that no one wants to let the VA levy would require $800 million on top of the president's request. A $900 million compromise in the Senate was rumored, said Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., one of the House members who rebelled against the appropriations bill, but "now I'm hearing that they may be at our number"-no increase over the president's request-"which is unjust."

The politics of veterans' needs will put real pressure on the Senate to beat the House's number, and on the House to compromise. The VA bill, however, could easily get lost in what is becoming an annual financial train wreck, with VA funding tucked into a massive omnibus spending billed passed in a hasty shamble long after the budget deadline of October 1.

If that's the outcome, veterans' groups have ire enough for both Republicans and Democrats. Said Ron Conley, outgoing national commander of the nearly 3 million-member American Legion, "I'm angry at both of 'em." The Senate's task is to try to defuse that anger.